Put a Democratic congressman, a Republican opponent and a Libertarian challenger at the same candidates' forum table and what do you get? Agreement that some children of illegal immigrants should be afforded a way to become citizens and stay in the only country they've ever known.
That was one highlight at Tuesday night's six-hour televised candidates' forum at Howard Community College sponsored by the Association of Community Services and the League of Women Voters. The show started at 4 p.m. with Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Trent Kittleman, and ran through all five County Council districts, the three General Assembly districts and Howard's two congressional districts before ending at 10 p.m. The results will be broadcast on Comcast and Verizon government cable channels through October.
The rare consensus between Rep. John Sarbanes, a District 3 Democrat who represents parts of the eastern county, GOP challenger Jim Wilhelm and Libertarian Jerry McKinley, was on the "Dream Act" now awaiting Senate action, which would allow those brought into the country illegally as small children who are now grown to stay and eventually become citizens, some through military service. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents District 7 covering western Howard and Ellicott City, also supported the Dream Act, though Frank Mirable Jr., his Republican opponent, did not.
Ulman, who has been hearing Kittleman point out for months that the Howard budget has nearly quadrupled in 15 years while the county's population is up about 30 percent, hit back in his closing. He said that while Kittleman ran the Maryland Transportation Authority under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., "your administrative budget was up 65 percent" in spending and the cost of outside contractors was up 45 percent. Ulman later added that tolls at the tunnels, the Maryland portion of Interstate 95 and on several bridges doubled in November 2003, though Kittleman was deputy secretary of transportation then and had not yet taken over the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Kittleman said later that as administrator, she did not have final say over the size of the agency's budget. The higher spending was largely because of construction of the Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which is to be a toll road, she said. Overall, the agency budget rose 15 percent from 2004 to 2007, she added.
Perhaps the sharpest exchanges came in the District 1 council race between Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat, and Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican. Flanagan said he has no quarrel with the complex plan for Doughoregan Manor, the historic Carroll family estate in Ellicott City, but he is "concerned about the process." The county zoning board rezoned 221 acres to allow development, while another 600 acres were preserved and 36 acres donated to the county for a park. Several parts of the plan were also approved in County Council votes. Watson sits on both bodies.
"There seemed to be an orchestrated plan before the process ever started" that the public was excluded from, Flanagan said. Watson responded that the process was open, with numerous public meetings held by the County Council and the zoning board. Since she hadn't seen Flanagan at any of those sessions, Watson said, "maybe he doesn't understand. It's easy to criticize when you haven't been present."
He quickly shot back: "I'm not concerned about public meetings. I'm concerned about meetings the public didn't attend."
Later, Flanagan raised questions about an audit of county custodial expenses, saying it showed $2 million budgeted last year but only $1 million spent, suggesting the other $1 million was unaccounted for. Watson and Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said later that the remaining money was used to plug budget holes because of declining revenue, which was confirmed by the county auditor's office.
Flanagan also said he'd want audits done of Ulman's use of staff, including his use of a police officer as a bodyguard/chauffeur, and said the county began his four-year term with a $30 million surplus and now faces a "$16 million deficit."
"We are living beyond our means," Flanagan said, noting that the county owes huge amounts for future retirees' medical benefits and pensions.
Watson quickly replied that there is no deficit, and that the budget is balanced and the county is "fiscally managed very well. His idea of fiscal responsibility is to vote against Howard County education." Watson pointed to Flanagan's record as a legislator voting against annual state budgets that she said contained $400 million for county schools. Her campaigning has shown that maintaining good schools is the top issue with voters, she said.